‘Transformers: The Premake’ Shamefully Has Us Excited For ‘Transformers: Age of Extinction’

By  · Published on June 17th, 2014

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Last night I watched the documentary O.J.: Trial of the Century, which debuted on Investigative Discovery last week to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman’s murders on June 12, 1994 (today, of course, is the anniversary of the infamous white Bronco chase that followed five days later). Directed by Nicole Rittenmayer (102 Minutes that Changed America), it’s an exceptional compilation film, a rarity for a TV production in that it features no talking heads or narration or any other sort of retrospective commentary. The only exposition is in the spare titles occasionally used for chronological purpose and whatever exists within the archival clips pieced together to form the historical narrative of O.J. Simpson’s arrest and trial.

In addition to offering that narrative, though, the film works on another level. Its very form says a lot about the media landscape two decades ago, and I thought about that through this morning as I watched a counterpart that similarly represents media proliferation of today. Only this other new film, a short compilation documentary titled Transformers: The Premake, is so distinctly immediate compared to Rittenmayer’s feature that it’s about something that sort of hasn’t even happened yet. Made by film critic and video essay master Kevin B. Lee, the 24-minute piece is an innovative and unauthorized making-of doc about the production of Transformers: Age of Extinction, which opens in the U.S. in 10 days (and premieres in Hong Kong this Thursday). It’s not just about the Transformers sequel, though, as Lee’s focus deals with broad issues regarding Hollywood today through this one particular movie.

And he has made me suddenly excited to see this one particular movie, which I hadn’t been anticipating much beforehand, while simultaneously making me want to avoid it even more than I’d previously considered.

That dual, conflicting response fits the short. In his compilation of web-based multimedia, mainly YouTube videos, Lee recognizes a few double-edged aspects of how the fourth Transformers movie is making its way onto the Internet before it even hits theaters. First and foremost there’s the huge amount of amateur behind-the-scenes footage documenting out-in-the-open action sequences being orchestrated and filmed in Chicago, Detroit, Hong Kong and elsewhere. These uploaded smartphone-recorded documents are a benefit to Paramount in the way they contribute to the hype and social marketing of the studio’s tentpole entertainment product, but they can also be seen as a threat when they include material that the studio doesn’t want seen by the public yet.

On top of what the videos do for the movie itself, they also apparently help to promote the vehicles used for the movie, offering those automotive clients some advance product placement. Through his “desktop documentary” style presentation (he uses his computer screen as the frame in which he navigates us through the content), Lee highlights articles on “free labor” in the digital age – somewhat ironic for an outsourced crowdsourced doc to make a point about outsourced crowdsourced marketing – and later accuses some of the “amateur” YouTubers of working for Paramount as part of an intentioned viral strategy (something we’ve seen a lot of with high-profile productions, including recently with claims about Star Wars “leaks”).

Then there are the CNS and CTV news clips from China about the movie’s shoot in the Wulong Karst National Geology Park. Reportedly the production has hurt local vendors during the actual filming, because it has been closed to visitors while Michael Bay and company are there, yet these vendors believe that in time the movie will attract more tourists and that will help their business. In a way, they’re getting a kind of product placement by proxy. It’s an interesting contrast, too, the way movie location tourism works in that traditional post-release fashion versus the draw productions have for the immediate sightseeing at the locations as they’re being employed in the filming. And there’s a subsequent appeal for people to want to then see that location on the big screen, in the context of the movie, rather than the usual other way around.

On the more controversial side of Hollywood’s current production trends, Lee looks at the collaboration between the studio and the Chinese government and movie industry and how that affects a blockbuster like Transformers: Age of Extinction creatively. More than just Wulong Karst, China itself is a huge product being placed in these movies, not just with its locations and onscreen and offscreen talent but culturally in the design of the Dinobots. And unlike the automotive brands, China as a brand isn’t necessary to this particular story, yet also unlike normal product placement, this isn’t as much about receiving advance funds in trade for advertising as it is about ensuring great international box office returns.

Finally there’s the twofold issue of domestic shoots, the pro and con of tax incentives that bring Hollywood movies to places like Detroit and Chicago because of savings rather than narrative purpose. The Detroit footage looks particularly interesting given that Transformers: Age of Extinction was filmed in a part of the city made to look like a place in China. But that issue is a greater one beyond the making of this specific title, more than the other stuff that Lee addresses, and so it’s something I think deserves a lot more than is possibly covered in Transformers: The Premake. Still, it’s better recognized here in brief as a tip of the iceberg than not at all.

While Lee’s critical angle on the blockbuster and its production are enough to remind me over and over why I shouldn’t buy into it, I can’t help but be turned on by some of what he’s put in his documentary. I want to now see how all these parts are put together as a movie, or whatever you want to call this product that looks like a movie. I’m sure he won’t mind this kind of reaction to something as complex as he himself has assembled. He’s helping to sell the movie to some of us even if he doesn’t intend to anymore than the amateur YouTubers mean for their videos to function as marketing aids.

Just as I wanted to watch the O.J. story unfold through exhaustive coverage 20 years after seeing it unfold more narrowly as it happened, the reverse is the case for seeing Transformers: Age of Extinction after watching the exhaustive coverage in Transformers: The Premake. Of course, I might wind up consciously thinking about the mass of onlookers that I know are off camera during different shots, as well as Lee filming those people filming the people filming the actual movie (I love those layers of perspective). And I’m also curious to see if anyone else takes on the challenge of doing their own doc or essay utilizing the YouTube footage, maybe compiled after seeing the movie. Call it “Transformers: The Remake of the Premake.”

Watch the complete Transformers: The Premake here:

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.